Rick Stein in Greece is an absolute delight. His love of the country – shared by so many of us – absolutely shines through, and he has the kind of approachable TV persona which makes you feel you’re standing at his shoulder as he explores the wonderful variety of regional Greek food.
And this week, in his second programme on Greece in his excellent series From Venice to Istanbul, he watched an expert make one of the classics of Greek cooking: moussaka.
Before I get to that (the main course, as it were), I am going to share a small piece of news of which I am very proud. This summer, I have, for the first time ever, grown aubergines in my English garden. Under cover, admittedly (the UK summer has been most un-summerlike and such tender plants wouldn’t have flourished outside) and not in great numbers, but glossy, purple aubergines nonetheless.
I’ve also produced peppers, some excellent tomatoes and great numbers of cucumbers, all grown organically and fertilised with nothing but horse manure, and the result has been Greek salads which taste something like a salad you’d eat in a Greek island taverna.
At the beginning of the year, I also got my hands on some seeds for gigantes (butter beans), another dish Rick prepared this week (with, I noticed, the interesting addition of spinach). My attempt to grow gigantes was an experiment and so my crop has been small – only a jar full of dried beans – but for the gardeners amongst you, they were as easy to grow as regular runner (string) beans and the plants have the most beautiful pure white flowers. I shall plant many more next year.
So I have had the privilege, in the past couple of weeks, of making moussaka with my home-grown aubergines. Moussaka is a dish I make for family and friends; the savouriness of it cooking, the warm spiciness of cinnamon and cloves, gives visitors a welcome like nothing else.
Rick’s moussaka came from the Mani, a remote region of the Peloponnese I found stark and somewhat forbidding, famous for its tower houses and (historically) a warring population (the tower houses were built as family fortresses at a time in the not too distant past when shooting your neighbours was considered acceptable).
The Mani was home to famous Grecophile Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Rick visited his study, a soothing, book-filled room with views of olive groves and no doubt a wonderful place to write, except… As one who has spent winters in old stone Greek houses (I refer you to The Messenger of Athens), I couldn’t help but wonder how Patrick – a very elderly man when he died – tolerated the cold in that room between November and February, but I have discovered he and his wife regularly over-wintered in Gloucestershire, hopefully in a house with central heating.
It was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s housekeeper who prepared moussaka for Rick, and I confess to a certain trepidation as she began to cook. I have always believed my mother-in-law’s recipe to be absolutely authentic, and I was dreading being proved wrong.
The housekeeper was a classic Greek chef, cooking on a grand scale, making béchamel in heroic quantities (and whisking it into a fluffiness which no doubt translated into a wonderful lightness in the finished dish). Her method was old school, paying not the slightest attention to fat content or calories, deep-frying the vegetables for maximum flavour, adding plenty of spices and salt.
Hermes would have approved, and I’m very pleased to say, her recipe was pretty much identical to my mother-in-law’s moussaka, right down to the bay leaf in the meat sauce.
Moussaka isn’t the quickest dish you’ll make by any means; made properly, it’s a labour of love that’ll take you a couple of hours to put together. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely, every mouthful. Just ask Rick.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.
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